The future of unmanned aerial vehicles lies in leveraging the “unmanned” part, according to a senior Pentagon official who spoke on Tuesday in Washington at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Over the past decade, the Defense Department purchased a lot of capability with unmanned vehicles, but that capability operates much the same way as manned systems, said Dyke Weatherington, director of Unmanned Warfare and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance at the Pentagon,
Weatherington said that unmanned vehicles are still largely dependent on people monitoring, manning and directing them, and “people are expensive." He suggested that humans should be in the system only to do what humans do best.
The same point was made by Navy Capt. Chris Cognati, head of unmanned aircraft systems under the deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, who said “if you’re out surveilling large swaths of ocean you don’t" necessarily want to pay somebody to sit there for eight hours and watch water go by.
“I don’t want to be streaming HD video of thousands of miles of empty ocean,” he said. I would like the [unmanned] air vehicle to recognize there is something of interest, alert the operator, queue another sensor, and then you have a human in the loop who then has the skills to evaluate what’s there.”
Weatherington said there are good reasons the current systems operate as they do. A major factor is that requirements have largely been driven by the needs of combatant commanders, who need solutions quickly.
“I think there is a huge opportunity in unmanned systems to reduce significant costs out of our current and future programs,” he said. “When I tell the FAA that in 10 years DoD will be flying multiple aircraft with a single pilot operator, you know, their hair stands up on end. They freak out.”
But history has shown that crew size has gone down over time, he said, and there’s no reason to think it can’t go down further.
“I don’t think there is any reason to believe it can’t go below one,” he said.